‘The idea of going back into it was terrifying’: Bullfrog’s Elle Bullen reflects on leaving and returning to adland

When Bullfrog ECD Elle Bullen had to step away from adland to take care of her health, she was unsure she would ever return. Now, 18 months back in the industry, and leading Bullfrog's creative output following leadership changes earlier this year, she chats to Mumbrella's Lauren McNamara on the biggest challenges she and other female creatives face, and how this impacts her work.

Elle Bullen was a true leader in Australia’s advertising industry at the helm of independent creative agency SICKDOGWOLFMAN, when in 2019, a doctor’s appointment and ultrasound changed the course of her life.

When pregnant with her second child, a casual mention to her midwife of a pain in her breast turned into a serious cancer diagnosis. Under the surface, there laid a 14cm tumour.

After giving birth, a year of “every treatment under the sun” kicked off – chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery – all while raising the newborn, a toddler, and working at a recently launched independent agency.

Elle Bullen

“That was one of the most intense periods of my career,” Bullen tells Mumbrella.

“It was really difficult. And after all that, there was still cancer.”

In 2021, she left SICKDOGWOLFMAN to put her health first, “which needed to happen”, because she got officially re-diagnosed three weeks later.

“My experience is a tricky one, because I’ve been forced to have a lot more perspective about my career and my role, that I think I would have if I hadn’t gotten whacked with the cancer stick… that’s for sure.”

In late 2022, Bullen made her triumphant return to adland, taking on an executive creative director role at indie agency Bullfrog.

“At that point, after well over a decade in advertising, in a high pressure environment, the idea of going back into it was terrifying to me. So I originally said no,” she explains to Mumbrella.

“But I knew Bullfrog was doing advertising differently, and I thought maybe I’d like to try that, so I started one day a week. Just dipped my toes in. Which was unheard of.”

To this day, she remains thankful for the gradual re-entry into the industry that Bullfrog provided, because otherwise it could have gone very wrong.

“It could have been all the pressure of the creative output of the agency put on my shoulders immediately, and I think that would have been too much. I would have buckled. But it was a slow restart, and I feel very lucky in that respect.”

Bullfrog’s philosophy of ‘doing things differently’ stems from a founder that doesn’t come from advertising. Dalton Henshaw, the founder and CEO, instead has a business background, and had no expectations that Bullfrog needed to follow the same typical agency culture and work style.

“That really resonated with me,” Bullen says. “It’s a work in progress still, but we’ve had to unlearn what an agency is and take the good bits, and reinvent the rest.”

That philosophy trickles down even to the agency’s people, and the environment it creates for them.

“My only regret is that it took a couple rounds of cancer for me to set boundaries and welcome support from those around me, and I hope that the environment we’re building at Bullfrog, particularly for women, means that nobody has to go through the struggles I did.”

She says a supportive environment is essential for female creatives, as the lack of support is one of the biggest challenges still faced today: “You need to have a healthy relationship with creativity – it’s like a bad boyfriend, you can love it, and I do fucking love it, but you can’t let it treat you badly.

“I have seen the industry improve in leaps and bounds – even in my own experience… but we’re definitely not all the way there.”

While many might be over the repetitive nature of discussing female creatives, Bullen argues we need to keep talking about it, because if we don’t nothing will change.

“We have to actively speak out and lend a hand, and embrace more diversity in creativity because the job’s not done.”

Now leading Bullfrog’s creative output as the creative partner, following leadership changes earlier this year that saw partners Matilda Hobba, Simon Bagnasco and Alex Speakman depart the agency, Bullen is challenging traditional creativity and ensuring the Bullfrog team is rethinking what creativity is, what shape it can take, and how they approach it for their clients.

Bullen with fellow ECD Dan Sparkes

“My expectation is very high,” she says, “because the ventures we’re creating are exciting and will challenge the same old, traditional ways of advertising.

“I’m excited about the things we’re working on and what the team’s brains and the beautiful people here are capable of.”

2024 is all about delivering on creative solutions in different shapes and forms: “We call it invested creativity as a small business. It’s as important to us as it is to our partners. We’re really pushing hard in that sense.”

She says working at a business run by someone with no advertising expectations is refreshing, and a completely different experience.

“[Dalton] has one of the best business brains I’ve ever experienced, and he sees potential in places that I think, traditionally, would have been overlooked,” she tells Mumbrella.

“And that’s exciting for me, because my job is to unleash creativity for the betterment of a business, and if that can be more than just a film or a poster, that’s fucking exciting.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.